2 posts

‘Do not be alarmed… the end is still to come: This is but the beginning of the birth pangs!’

Preached by Carol Kidd on 18 November 2018: 2nd Sunday before Advent
Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:14,19-25; Mark 13:1-8

May I speak in the name of Jesus who delivers us into new life, Amen.

If you have come to church hoping to hear good news – today’s a good day!

Look again at the gospel reading…

Here is Jesus in resolute ‘tell it as it is’ mode – no parable or miracle, no love your neighbour, no gentle words of protection – instead of instant comfort we hear prophesy of destruction, wars, rumours of wars, natural disasters and by the way that’s only just the start! His sermon continues from verse 9 onwards – it is the last, longest and probably most difficult discourse to his disciples.

So how can Jesus’ tough straight to the point speaking help us when there are so many alarming happenings reported day after day in the news?

At a time when many are facing uncertain futures can we like the psalmist truly have the confidence to declare that our fortune lies in the Lord’s hands?                            

The good news? Jesus said many will try to lead us astray but ‘Do not be alarmed’ at wars and rumours of wars, kingdoms against kingdoms, earthquakes and famines.

But it is not that simple is it? When we hear that Jesus says ‘do not be alarmed’ how does that work whilst threats of war are a reality and a fine line exists between nations respecting nations – when this very week, day after day, we have had before us the devastating effects of the Californian wildfires – the total destruction of the town named Paradise?

And yet – and yet – Jesus’ words can resonate as a positive message of God’s faithfulness, fully reflecting Jesus’ love and care for his disciples then – and us today.

Let me try to explain how I understand it:  

His message is clear: ‘don’t be troubled’… of course if we are concerned and told ‘not to worry’ more often than not we let it bother us a great deal – even scare us – and subsequently it can lead to our fear rubbing off on others.

Jesus says:
‘Do not be alarmed… the end is still to come:
This is but the beginning of the birth pangs!’

For over 35 years I had the privilege of walking alongside countless women and families, as a midwife I was a guest sharing their journeys of pregnancy and birth. An essential part of that role involved helping couples prepare for the ‘big day’ – providing information and choice so that rather than fearing what was to come there would be hopeful anticipation – a ‘looking forward to’ the birth process.

Any apprehension resulting from not knowing exactly how long or how painful the labour might be can be counterbalanced by the positive expectation of meeting and celebrating the new life coming into the world.

The name ‘midwife’ is relational and simply translates as ‘with woman’. Today’s readings very much follow the theme of ‘God with us’ sharing, teaching, warning, advising and reassuring. And he gives us choice – chooses us to be in a relationship with him – tells us clearly what to expect if we invite him as a guest into our lives.

Jesus had been teaching and healing in the courtyard of the Gentiles within the Temple compound. Herod’s Temple – immense in size and grandeur, majestic, visible for miles, clad with gold that reflected the sun’s rays. One of the disciples admired and drew attention to the stones of the incredible building – Jesus predicted its destruction and history tells us that within 40 years of Jesus’ death the Temple was trashed and burned by the Roman Army.

For the Jewish people the Temple represented the place where God dwelt separated from the ordinary people by the sanctuary curtain and only accessible to the High Priest. The time was fast approaching when Jesus would make the ultimate sacrifice and the curtain of the Temple would be torn in two. Mark records an eye witness account of Jesus privately meeting with Peter, James, John and Andrew: he gave them a warning – no not to frighten them but to prepare them for their future.

In labour early signs precede the active phase when the contractions are strong and there is hope that the labour will become established and lead to a birth. Applying this analogy can help us understand Jesus’ warning to the disciples then – and to us today: ‘Do not be alarmed’. There have always been and will be even more disasters resulting from forces of nature and tragedies of war caused by human error, greed and sin yet we can be assured that God’s kingdom will be established and the suffering and pain will end.

Jesus’ message for the disciples can strengthen us. When we see all the traumas of the world and cry out to be led safely through life’s difficulties, he will hear our worries and guide us in the way that leads to new birth as children of God. From personal times of trial and darkness, illness and loss, to world events of devastating proportions, it is when we are in a trusting relationship with Jesus that he will guide us, empower us, present us with choices and deliver us from pain and anguish and transform our lives.  God has promised to be faithful and asks us to hold fast to the hope we place in him as an encouragement to others.

‘Do not be alarmed… the end is still to come:
This is but the beginning of the birth pangs!’

The birth pangs should not frighten for they herald the incoming of God’s kingdom. When a labour reaches its fullness the baby is born – the new arrival is announced! With any new birth comes a sense that yes life will be changed with new journeys, new challenges ahead – so we are blessed with the offer of sharing in a loving relationship with Jesus confident in the new and living way he has opened up for us.

Even when warned by Jesus of turbulent times yet to come we can find assurance in his message and the words of today’s post Communion prayer summarize our desire:

‘Gracious Lord…..bring us at the last to that fullness of life for which we long.’ Amen

A new heaven and a new earth

Preached by Brenda Holden on 4 November 2018: All Saints
Psalm 24:1-6; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

The clocks in the UK have gone back one hour and we have to adjust to the daytimes that will become increasingly shorter and darker – time for thinking ahead to warmer sunny days- our holidays when we might possibly visit islands in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece. The writer of Revelation was on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, but he wasn’t there for a holiday – he was there as an exile. He had been forced to be there either by choice to escape, or by the authorities who wanted him out of the way. He might be in the sunshine, but spiritually he was aware of the darkness around him.

While on the island he had visions – some of them seem very strange to us. The one we heard about in our first reading seems to hit the spot for where we are in our world today. It was a vision of a new heaven and a new earth looking forward to a time of order and stability in creation. In the absence of the chaos of the sea, God’s ownership and Lordship over creation is finally asserted once and for all and the damage wrought on creation by humanity is undone. This new creation is a renewal of that which has been damaged. Creation ends where it began as the perfectly restored work of the one who is both the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end.

The damaged creation is something that we cannot fail to be aware of today. The news items about global warming, the pollution of our land, our sea and our air have at long last entered the realm of our popular media – for some of us who were scientists and attended university in the early 1970’s we have been all too well aware of the damage mankind has been inflicting on God’s creation over the last 40-50 years – detailed research has been ongoing, but it has been politically silenced. We should be truly grateful for the incredible book ‘Silent Spring’ written by Rachel Carson that was published at the end of the 1960s that halted the exponential use of pesticides –without that book our springs and summers by now would indeed be silent without the sound of insects and birdsong!

What the writer of Revelation is saying is that there is hope – God is in charge. On the island, reflecting on the chaos of sporadic persecutions of Christians by the Roman authorities, he was having a vision that death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.

God is saying, ’See I am making all things new’!

What, you might be thinking has this got to do with the Christian Festival of All Saints that we are celebrating today?

Saints are those who are to come into God’s presence. In fact, in the New Testament, saints are the community of believers who share a faith in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. Everyone has the qualifications to become a saint – we don’t have to own a halo and be pictured in a stained glass window!

Fortunately for all of us – we are all welcomed into God’s presence. Many of those who by worldly judgement were thought to be unqualified in Jesus’ time eg the tax collectors and sinners were deemed worthy, perhaps more worthy than the religious dignitaries of the day.

In fact, the Gospel reading chosen for today does not highlight someone whom we would necessarily regard as a saint in the usual sense. Lazarus, as a young man in the household of Martha and Mary, was not considered to be the head of the family as we would expect. Lazarus, who was loved by his sisters and by Jesus, had died and was bound in his grave clothes in his tomb, but he was given life as a free gift from God.

We, like Lazarus, as Christ’s disciples, are called to emerge from our former lives to enter God’s new creation and join in the worship in God’s presence.

This brings us to the Psalm we heard this morning – it also was about ‘Who is qualified to come into God’s presence – who is a saint who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

We are invited to join the singers of the Psalm. They are gathering – coming from far and near like a football crowd merging together towards St. Mary’s stadium to watch the Saints play. We are here to worship the King of Glory. We are all welcome to join the multitude of the saints in the new heaven and the new earth. Amen